Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, Poster Boy for the Separation of Church and State

Each year at this time the annual "war on Christmas" is forced upon us by the right wing pundits, who never let the truth get in the way of a good ratings score, and the fundamentalist preachers, who have in recent years launched themselves into a battle to replace the republic with a theocracy. The argument usually centers around a Christian religious display that has been placed on government property or paid for by some misguided government agency, both actions intent upon forcing a showdown and bringing attention to the cause of forcing religion into government.

The argument is always that there is a secularization of society and that government is the cause. The government, they say, is intent upon making the Christian religion illegal, while giving other religions preference. These days, the Islamic religion is brought to the forefront, since it is capturing world-wide attention. It's kind of like professional wrestling used to be. In the 40's and 50's German and Japanese wrestlers were the "bad guys." By the 60's they were being replaced by Russian "bad guy" wrestlers. These wrestlers were always cheaters, who used illegal holds and caused free for all brawls. So it goes with Islam and Christianity, and the fight over government sponsored religion.

During the recent election, the religious right often singled out President-elect Obama's Islamic roots and his middle name as reasons to vote against him. They referred to him as a terrorist, a Muslim, and the anti-Christ. Some end timers prophesied that his election would be the signal that the end of the world is near. Over the past thirty years, these same people have repeatedly tried to force religion into government and have succeeded in bringing it into the electoral process from the local to the national level. However, these efforts were somewhat marginalized on November 4.

The battle for separation of church and state has been going on since early in the colonization of this country. The first amendment to the Constitution states that "government shall make no laws respecting religion." This statement was not placed there on a whim. The founding fathers were much closer to the abuse of human rights, which theocratic rule brings, than we are today. Although, all we have to do is look to the Middle East and we see what happens when religion forces itself on the people.

As secondary school students, we were taught that the Pilgrims and other religious groups emigrated to this country because they weren't able to practice their religion in freedom, which is eminently true. Freedom of religion, we were told, is one of the cornerstones of the founding of the country, which is also very true. We were also taught that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, and, because he couldn't tell a lie, he admitted it to his father. Incidentally, I wonder how many people know that the Washington legend, along with the coin toss over the Potomac and other Washington fables were created by a minister, Parson Mason Weems. Parson Weems was a "revisionist historian," I suppose. But I digress...

There were many groups who came, seeking religious freedom, but the Puritans were the most populous and, probably the most zealous. They had long felt that the Church of England was moving away from its traditions. It was, they said, on the brink of "popery" as it gave more credence to rituals and the power of the bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury was intent upon rooting out those who did not conform, and the Puritans fell into that category. They had separated themselves from the Church of England, and, thus, became known as Separatists.

When the Puritans arrived on these shores, they were seeking a place to practice their religion in freedom. While freedom of religion was important to them, tolerance of other Christian or non-Christian sects, along with the separation of church and state were not cornerstones of their beliefs. They neither recognized or approved of tolerance. Once they had established themselves, they became as zealous as the Church of England in rooting out heretics.

Between 1629 and 1642, some 20,000 settlers arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the seat of Puritanism in the New World. From there Puritanism was to spread throughout the colonies to one degree or another. These zealots believed that all of the answers, civil and religious, could be found in the Bible. Thus, they, set up a holy commonwealth which they were determined to keep free of outside influences. They defended their beliefs and rooted out non-conformity in a zealous manner not unlike the Spanish Inquisition. Although democracy would one day spring from the loins of these movements, it was usually strongly opposed by the leaders of the Bay Colony.

In 1631, with a theocracy now firmly established, the General Court of the Colony decided that "no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic, but such as are members of some of the churches within the same." To become a member one had to give proof of a blameless life and make a statement that he had experienced a sense of his personal salvation. Therefore, church membership became a condition of being made a freeman and only a freeman had the right to vote and participate in the government.

As hard as they worked to keep the colony "pure" and free of heretics, they couldn't keep such perverse individuals away. In 1631, the Rev. Roger Williams arrived in the colony. He would prove to be a thorn in the side of the clergy, and, thus, the government. Williams accused the clergy of compounding corruption because they claimed to still be associated with the Church of England. He further irritated them by complaining that they threatened the freedom of individual congregations, a tenet of Puritanism. He became even more of a problem, when he opposed the taking of land from the Indians. As a result of his actions he was sentenced to banishment in 1635, and was given six weeks to prepare. However, when the powers learned that he was recruiting for a settlement of his own, he was immediately banished in the dead of winter and had to move to the protection of a local Indian settlement.

Williams wasn't the only thorn in the side. Anne Hutchinson and Jonathan Wheelwright were found guilty of heresy and banished from the colony because of differing theological views. Even worse were the Quakers, who invaded the Colony in 1656. The first, two women, Mary Fisher and Anne Austin, were stripped naked and their bodies carefully examined on the pretext of searching for signs of witchcraft. They were then thrown into prison for five weeks before being shipped back to Barbados, from whence they had come. Shortly afterward it was made a crime for ships to bring Quakers into the colony. In 1658 the General Court ordered the death penalty for Quakers who returned after banishment.

One old man, a Quaker, William Brend was so terribly punished that the citizens of Boston protested. His head and heels had been locked together for 16 hours and then was given 117 lashes with a tarred rope until he was unconscious. The public was informed that this was the will of God and that justice had been done. When two Quakers could not pay fines the Court was more merciful. Their children were sold into bondage and shipped away. In this way they could make money and be rid of this pestilence. On one occasion three Quakers, including a woman named Mary Dyer, were sentenced to hang. At the last minute Dyer's sentence was commuted to banishment. However, after seeing her companions hanged, she later felt a sense of duty and martyrdom and returned to the Colony. She was quickly hanged upon arrival.

Over time, change was inevitable. The Colony was forced to accept others, as the colonies grew and more and more people arrived and brought diverse views. Although the other colonies had experienced similar periods of religious domination, none was as zealous as the Bay Colony. By the time of the American Revolution, religion was still a mainstay, and the dangers of religious domination of government was still very real as the founding fathers began to frame the Constitution. Thus, their concerns about the separation of church and state and true freedom of religion for their countrymen.

Today's Christians, who are so concerned about the secularism of society, have in my opinion, little to worry about. As I have stated so many times before, there are churches on every corner and new ones cropping up in storefronts and homes all over the country. There are more Christians than ever before. The U.S. Government and State and Local Governments are saturated with Christians. The U.S. government has made no move, whatsoever, to curtail any one's freedom to worship at home, at church, in a field, on a trail, in a car, or with a permit or a paid rental, on government property.

The protests over the Ten Commandments in government buildings or nativities put up by government on government property are simply windmill fights to call attention to a particular group or person. These people are the local pastors and power brokers or they are the national radio and TV pundits, who are looking for votes, ratings, power, money or all of the above.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony is a perfect example of the danger of religious domination of government. Anyone who is a religious zealot, so fundamental, that they are driven by their own narrow minded beliefs is a danger to us all. If a theocracy were established here, we would be one small step away from another Bay Colony where man interprets God's word for his own, almost maniacal, purposes. All we have to do is look at the Middle East and the fundamentalist Muslims, who dominate governments and we can see the dangers of church rule.

Yet, there are those who would blindly follow the likes of Mike Huckabee, who has advocated amending the U.S. Constitution to be more in line with the Bible. They think no further than the present, not considering the consequences of their actions, and not realizing that they might well be the future heretics and find the end of a rope or feel the sting of the whip. Many of them are prejudiced toward Catholics, yet demographics say that Latinos will be in the majority in less than 40 years. If a theocracy were created today, the nation would be forced into Catholicism in a short period. I'm sure Huckabee's zealots would be horrified.

History has a habit of repeating itself, if we forget it. The founding fathers were intimately aware of the dangers of religious rule. They wrote about it and they put controls in the Constitution to guard against it. We must be vigilant today to ensure that we do not return to those times when religious beliefs bred intolerance and freedom was a dirty word.


Doug B said...

Very, very excellent post.

The majority of those who would follow the theocrats truly do not understand all the ramifications.

That Baptist Ain't Right said...

Bravo! Very, very, VERY well said!

Rod in Rabun Gap said...

You almost echo my sentiments. The term "religious freedom" is, or should be, to apply to all residents of the U.S., not just Evangelical Christians of the far right wing of the GOP.

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